About the Forth

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About the Forth

The Forth of Forth, on the east coast of Scotland, is a sheltered arm of the North Sea and the estuary of the River Forth. From the tidal water limit at Stirling to the Isle of May the Forth is 96km long and covers an area of 1,670km2. At Stirling the waters are shallow and brackish i.e. a mix of sea and freshwater from the river. Expanses of mudflats exposed at low tide are rich feeding areas for birds. Further down the narrow channel between North and South Queensferry has been bridged first by the Forth Rail Bridge and then later by the Forth Road Bridge. A deep channel allows large ships to pass under the bridges to the ports of Rosyth and Grangemouth. Further down the Forth widens out and the shores become sandy and rocky interspersed with fishing villages. Golf courses have traditionally been created on the sandy grassy links in Fife and East Lothian.

The Firth of Forth is the only area in the east coast with offshore islands. The largest of these is the Isle of May, an important seabird breeding habitat. There are around 12 islands.

The Firth of Forth is an important resource for people and wildlife. It is a major commercial area with around one quarter of Scotland's population in or near its shores. A key centre for the oil industry, crude oil is exported from its shores and oil is processed at Grangemouth and Mossmorran for use in Scotland, the UK and Europe. There are busy docks at Leith and Rosyth and the largest container terminal in Scotland at Grangemouth.

Two of Scotland's largest coal fired power stations are sited on the coast at Cockenzie and Longannet. Torness Nuclear Power Station lies just outside the Forth south of Dunbar.

Industrial infrastructure sits alongside important wildlife areas, sandy beaches, ancient fishing villages and stately homes all of which provide recreational space for residents and visitors to the area.


The geology of the Forth of Forth is both interesting and complex. The area has been well studied since the early days of geological survey in the 18th century.

The estuary was largely created by glaciers excavating deep basins as they scoured the landscape and exploited existing river valleys. Following the last ice age some 7000 years ago, the ice retreated and the sea flooded the Forth valley up to Menteith and Aberfoyle. As the sea retreated the land rose and the flat fertile lands (the Carselands) at the head of the Forth emerged from the water. At first covered in peat, the area was gradually reclaimed to become fertile farmland and subsequently in demand for industrial development and transport links.

Further down the coast the underlying coal, oil shale and limestone reserves were fortunately close to the shore and were exploited from earliest times. As the Industrial Revolution gathered pace the reserves of coal and limestone were used to fuel the many industries around the Forth and beyond. The oil shale reserves in West Lothian created the world's first oil industry and gave the area a head start once North Sea oil came onshore in the 1970's and 1980's.


Despite all the industrial activity and development, the Firth of Forth and the estuary has a great variety of natural habitats. The mudflats in the Upper Forth are home to wading birds especially during the winter when they migrate here from further north. Species include dunlin, curlew, bar tailed godwit and oystercatchers

Mudflats around Cramond are also important and are excellent places to spot wading birds including curlew in autumn and winter.

In summer flocks of non breeding mute swans congregate at the mouths of the River Esk at Musselburgh and River Almond at Cramond.

Saltmarsh is a rare habitat and the largest area is at Aberlady Bay in East Lothian. The coastal grasslands and dunes in Fife and East Lothian are home to many flowering plants and grasses some of which are nationally rare.

The rocky islands provide safe breeding areas for many thousands of sea birds including puffins, gannets, fulmars, guillemots and razorbills. Some of the islands have been invaded by a plant called tree mallow which is preventing puffins in particular, from reaching their nesting burrows. Volunteers are working to remove tree mallow from nesting sites.

The marine environment is also important and the undersea habitats around the rocky islands support many species such as sponges, anemones and sea slugs. Traditionally fishing depended on the harvest of mussels, oysters, scallops and herring. These industries have largely collapsed but the Forth is showing signs of recovery and is a nursery ground for species such as flounder and a wintering area for herring and sprats. Salmon are once again using the river to gain access to upper reaches of the Forth for breeding.

Seals are now a common site in the Forth and grey seals give birth in November at various rocky locations and islands including the Isle of May.

Whales and dolphins are also noted on a regular basis. Bottlenose dolphins and porpoises visit the Forth and are regularly seen from boats and from the shore. Occasionally a whale makes it up as far as the Forth Bridge but this is uncommon. However a family of Minke Whales are sighted near the Isle of May each summer. For more information on whales and dolphins see the article by Nikki Macleod in Forth Sight No 16.

Most of the coastline and the islands are legally protected by national and international wildlife designations. The Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) protect nationally important habitats, species and geology. The Special Protection Area (SPA) is an international designation which protects important bird species. The Isle of May is a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) because it supports a breeding colony of grey seals making it the largest east coast breeding colony of grey seals in Scotland.

For more information see www.snh.gov.uk.


The main islands of the Forth are:
(Local authority)
Tullibody Inch (Clackmannanshire)
Alloa Inch (Clackmannanshire)
Inchgarvie (Edinburgh)
Inchmickery (Fife)
Inchcolm (Fife)
Inchkeith (Fife)
Cramond (Edinburgh)
Fidra (East Lothian)
The Lamb (East Lothian)
Craigleith (East Lothian)
Eyebroughty (East Lothian)
Bass Rock (East Lothian)
Isle of May (Fife)
Preston Island was once an island but is now surrounded by reclaimed land. The island is now part of the Torry Bay Local Nature Reserve near Culross in west Fife. In the early 19th century the island supported a coal mine and salt pans.

The Isle of May is a National Nature Reserve (NNR). For more information visit

Inchcolm has an historic abbey, gardens and a sandy beach. The island is visited by boat trips daily in the summer. For more information www.maidoftheforth.co.uk

There is some debate over what is actually an island and what is a rock! Any suggestions for additions to this list please e mail the Forum on secretary@forthestuaryforum.co.uk


The ports of Leith, Grangemouth and Rosyth are some of the busiest in the UK in terms of tonnes of goods. In 2006 the Forth ports handled 31.5 million tonnes making the Forth the busiest port in Scotland.

Hound Point near the Forth Bridges was constructed in 1975 to export crude oil from the North Sea. Braefoot Bay Loading Terminal on the north shore exports ethylene, propane and butane from the plants at Mossmorran operated by Shell and Exxon. Burntisland and neighbouring Methil although much smaller in size, are still busy ports.

Rosyth currently operates a freight only link to Europe. Cruise ships berth regularly at Leith and Rosyth


Bridging the Forth has challenged engineers and others over the years. The main bridges (Kincardine Bridge and the Road and Rail Bridges) were, at the time of their completion, world class engineering triumphs. The Road and Rail Bridges are well known landmarks and help make the Firth of Forth known throughout the world.

Across the Forth Estuary itself there are (currently) 5 bridges. From Stirling going downstream they are:

Taylorton Bridge - opened in 1985 to take the new A91 road across the river just downstream of Stirling. Yachts and larger boats can no longer use the upper reaches of the river because the bridge does not allow enough clearance for masts.

Kincardine Bridge - opened in 1936. When it was built it was the longest swing bridge in Europe and ships could pass underneath to the port of Alloa. The bridge is still a vital road link but the central swing section is no longer in use.

Forth Road Bridge - opened in 1964. This replaced a car ferry between North and South Queensferry and when it was opened it was the longest suspension bridge in the world outside the USA. The bridge is a vital link in the transport routes in the east of Scotland. Traffic usage is much higher than when it was first planned in the 1960's. More information www.forthroadbridge.co.uk

Forth Rail Bridge - opened in 1890. Arguably one of the most famous bridges in the world it was built to take the rail link between Edinburgh and the north and east of Scotland. Still in use today its cantilevered shape is instantly recognisable. Each tower is 104m (340feet) high. Construction was started in 1883 and it took 7 years and 55,000 thousand tons of steel to complete.

Click here to see a 360 degree view from the Rail Bridge.

To view the Flickr group for the Forth Bridge, please click here.

Clackmannanshire Bridge - The new Upper Forth Crossing at Kincardine was completed in 2008 and was officially opened and named the Clackmannanshire Bridge by First Minister Alex Salmond on Wednesday 19th November 2008. The bridge crosses the Forth just upstream of the existing Kincardine Bridge and will take traffic out of the village of Kincardine. (See www.transportscotland.gov.uk for more information.)

New Developments

Queensferry Crossing - latest information July 2013

Latest News July 2013

In December 2007, the Scottish Government announced its intention to build a cable stayed bridge to the west of the existing Forth Road Bridge.   The new bridge will be cable stayed and carry two lanes of traffic in either direction.  The existing bridge will be adapted for buses and taxis. Pedestrians and cyclists will continue to use the existing bridge to cross the Forth.  The new bridge will have a  hard shoulder on either side and this is expected to reduce traffic delays.  Buses will use the hard shoulder when wind conditons prevent them using the existing bridge. Wind shielding will protect the crossing from high winds.

The Principal Contract to build the new bridge and connecting roads was awarded to the Forth Crossing Bridge Constructors (FCBC) consortium with a successful tender price of £790m, significantly below the original estimated price range of £900 to £1.2 billion.

The contract to install elements of the project’s Intelligent Transport System (ITS) on the M90 in Fife was awarded to John Graham (Dromore) Ltd, with a successful tender price of £12.9 million, below the original £15m to £22m estimated range.

Finally, the contract to upgrade M9 Junction 1a at Kirkliston has been awarded to a consortium between John Sisk and Roadbridge with a successful tender price of £25.6m, again substantially below the estimated price range of £45m to £65m.

The lower than expected costs of these contracts means the total estimated cost range of delivering the FRC project is now £1.45 billion to £1.60 billion, a substantial reduction on the previous estimate of £1.7 billion to £2.3 billion.

The FRC project is currently on track to be delivered in 2016 and will replace the current Forth Road Bridge as the main crossing for cross-Forth traffic.

The bridge was named in a public competition and the new name Queensferry Crossing was announced in June 2013. Click here to see the result of the public vote.

There are several webcams that have been set up so that you can view the building of the bridge live from several different viewpoints - click here to see the webcams from the Transport Scotland website.

For further information see www.transportscotland.gov.uk.

What's in a Name?

The name chosen in 1993 was Forth Estuary Forum. Over the years there have been comments that the term 'estuary' is an English term and not in common use in Scotland. It is true that 'Firth' is a Scottish word with its roots in Old Norse. However the 'Firth' part of the Firth of Forth is commonly taken to mean the area of the Forth roughly from the Road and Rail Bridges downstream i.e. to the Forum's outer limit. The 'estuary' is defined as the area of the Forth from the tidal limit at Stirling to the Queensferry Bridges. The River Forth is upstream of Stirling.

By including the term 'estuary' in the name the Forum is including the whole of the Forth from Stirling to its outer limit i.e. a line drawn from Dunbar to Fife Ness.

Map of the Forth

Wildlife leaflet

On the Forth, A leisure craft users guide to the Firth of Forth

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Forth Estuary Forum - promoting the wise and sustainable use of the Forth